A Monster Calls was meant to be the final work of award-winning children’s author Siobhan Dowd, who died in 2007 at the age of 47 of breast cancer. She began the book, and Patrick Ness, author of the blockbuster Chaos Walking trilogy, finished it. The result is a gorgeous, imaginative, heartbreaking novel that’s both a tribute to and celebration of Dowd’s work, and a herald of Ness’ continued presence as a force in children’s literature.
Conor’s life is hard. His mother is very sick, his father left them a long time ago, and even though he remains optimistic, things don’t seem to be improving. His mother’s illness makes things harder in school, where he’s alternately pitied and bullied, and his grandmother, the only functioning adult in his life, is cold and practical and difficult to talk to.
Things get even stranger when a monster begins to visit Conor at night. The monster shares stories with him, stories supposedly about justice, about the right thing, but Conor remains skeptical. He’s both frightened and intrigued by the monster’s power, by the idea of what the monster could do if it decided to invade his life.
The novel jumps between Conor’s nighttime conversations with the monster and his daytime struggles with his family, and as his mother gets worse, Conor begins to hope for a miracle, even as fear grips him from all sides. Woven through it all are metaphors of loss, death, resurrection, hope and healing, highlighted by gorgeous and grim illustrations by Jim Kay.
It’s a fitting story to be labeled Dowd’s final. She lived with the illness that would take her life during her most productive years as a writer, and it weighed on her mind every day. A Monster Calls is an attempt to take the constant shadow of terminal illness and weave it into something fantastic and imaginative. It’s as potent as any of her completed work, and it’s made all the more potent by Ness, who writes with all the intensity and magic that made his Chaos Walking novels so powerful.
In an era when shallow paranormal polish seems to dominate books for young readers, A Monster Calls is a reminder of just how powerful children’s literature can be when the tale is told well and told with heart. It’s among the most heartwrending, beautiful books you’ll read all year, and it will stay with you every night for weeks.